Driving Prison Reform with Artificial Intelligence

Prison Systems: Overview and Challenges

Prisons are an integral part of any criminal justice system. Under the most ideal circumstances and implementation, a prison should serve as a center of rehabilitation during the period for which a convicted person has some of their rights as a full member of society curtailed. Circumstances are, however, far from ideal and in some countries, prisons are used for political repression by dictatorial rulers. Even in nations where prisons only serve as confinement centers for law-breakers, they are still plagued by significant challenges. 

This article will highlight some of these challenges and how Artificial Intelligence may contribute to ongoing efforts to create prison reform.

According to the Global Prisons Report published in 2021 by the Penal Reform International, an estimated 11 million people are incarcerated across the world. This figure marks an 8% rise in the number of imprisoned individuals since 2010. Supporting figures around this reveal a grim situation - over 3 million of these people are in pre-trial detention while 70% of the prison population are awaiting trial and presumed innocent. 

These statistics highlight one of the key issues faced by prison systems - overcrowding. It is projected that prisons in no fewer than 118 countries are operating at >100% capacity. With a high prison staff to prisoner ratio, inmate monitoring is a herculean task. 

Many of the other associated problems in prisons are either directly or indirectly related to the overpopulation issue. 

Prisons are noted for their important public health consequences - inmates are at a high risk of deteriorating health due to poor nutrition and unhygienic environmental conditions. They are prone to infectious diseases, sexually transmitted infections, and mental health illnesses like depression. They are also at risk of drug addiction and drug-related deaths.

In addition, gang violence and violent behaviors are rife especially in maximum-security facilities.

There is also the added challenge of social rehabilitation upon release from prison. Long-term inmates find reintegration back into society to be difficult and are often unprepared for the realities of being outside of prison routine and confined space.

Artificial Intelligence and Prison systems

In the pursuit of solutions to the complex challenges faced by prison systems, a number of possibilities exist. All of these require strong governmental will as most prison systems are run by the public sector. Widescale reforms are required as well as a complete and thorough assessment of the criminal justice system. As legislative solutions are developed, the role of emerging technologies such as AI as an important driver of prison reform must be rated highly for the innovation and sweeping changes it can be used to deliver.

Below are some of the most important ways that AI can transform the prison industry:

i. Smart Prisons: This is already being deployed in Hong Kong and China. Sensors and cameras are used to monitor inmates and the input is fed to AI systems equipped with computer vision capabilities and trained to recognize suspicious patterns of behavior among inmates e.g. suicide or homicide attempts. These behaviors can be flagged for review. Furthermore, the health status of a patient can be better tracked through the use of smart devices that can relate information about an inmate's vital signs to a central monitoring station. This eliminates the need for guards to stay in close contact with patients with high-risk medical conditions. The overall use of smart prison systems can help to foster a better understanding of prison communities and develop more personalized inmate monitoring and rehabilitation approaches.

ii. Virtual Reality for Rehabilitation: The transition from the prison environment to the real world can be a jarring experience for many, especially those that have been incarcerated for decades. The integration of inmates back into society can be eased through the use of virtual reality. The simulated experience of the real world can offer some degree of ease ahead of integration into society. VR therapy is also a possible important use case for offenders with background mental health challenges. 

iii. Offender Management Systems: People are often sent to prisons without any established structures to plan the required engagement and learning necessary to ensure they do not become repeat offenders. AI can be used to build Offender Management Systems that use an inmate's personal background to recommend a rehabilitation path with personalized learning experiences and community service. The tenure of sentence and the immediate post-jail release can be structured to guarantee that convicts do not fall into a repetitive cycle of crime. 









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